This week’s spotlight falls on British poet and critic Matthew Arnold. Though remembered today largely for his essays and his prose, it was his poetry that actually won him early acclaim. Religious, and the very picture of a proper British gentleman, one of his greatest desires was for new literature “to animate and ennoble” the readers of his time. A graduate of Oxford University, he would go on to be a teacher, and later, a government school inspector, and education, above all else, became one of the driving forces of Arnold’s life.
Many of his poems struck at social issues, and reflected rather clearly the values of the era, while others struggled with the concept of psychological isolation. It could be argued the man had a certain lofty sense of self, based on some of his written self-assessments, yet given the praise he garnered in a time of Victorian sensibility, it’s small wonder. Today, however, his poetry is mostly to be found in school anthologies, and as such, many students may remember today’s piece–”Dover Beach,” one of his most well-regarded pieces.
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.